Can We Teach Leaders Humility?

March 19, 2013 — 51 Comments

karin 8 copy 300x300 Can We Teach Leaders Humility?

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less” -C. S. Lewis

I’m alarmed by the humility deficit in many leaders.  Why do we reinforce, recognize and promote the brazen and arrogant, over the humble?  Why do we teach our teams to cater to executives as celebrities?

I’m always in awe of the truly humble–those consistently making enormous sacrifices and deflecting the credit.  The most humble leaders are great spiritual teachers.

Is humility teachable?  

Apparently yes. I’m audacious enough to write a post on teaching humility.  Let me add a caveat.  I don’t have humility handled.

Truly humble leaders don’t try to impress us with titles, credentials, or accomplishments.  They pull out the best in us. Or as Max Brown wrote in The Character-Based Leader,

“Humility isn’t timidity or weakness.  It is confidence, wisdom and grace combine with an acknowledgement that we are all imperfect.”

5 Ways To Teach Humility

1. Build Confidence:  Often what passes for arrogance is actually fear.   Some leaders attempt to “humble” other leaders or “put them in their place” through public criticism or embarrassment.  This tactic actually has the opposite impact.  We need leaders who are confident enough to not need to talk about it.

2. Teach the Art of Great Questions:  
Teach the art of provocative questions.   Teach the power of pause.  Ask your own questions “what does your team think about this idea?”  “Who did you involve in this decision?”

3. Get Them Out of Their Comfort Zone:  Give them a stretch assignment  or project in an area they know nothing about.  I can tell you from experience, nothing is more humbling than being clueless.  Put them in arenas where they must rely on their team or peers to be successful.

4. Give them tools to manage their blind spots:  Do a 360 assessment.  Give them a coach.  Encourage your team to surface and work through their own conflicts.

5. Model it

  • Be a servant leader
  • Admit when you are wrong
  • Coach privately
  • Recognize, honor and reward humble behaviors on teams, as ironic as this sounds.  Minimize desire for folks to “toot their own horn” by tooting it for them.
  • Reject special treatment, even when it’s convenient.  Live by the same rules and standards you expect your team to uphold.

How would you teach humility?

Thoughts on Humility From a Fortune 20 Executive (my exchange with Mark Tobin)
10 Ways To Teach Your Kids Humility
(a great  approach for growing young leaders)
Creative Leadership:   Humility and Being Wrong
Humility Matters: 9 Ways Confident Leaders Remain Humble

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51 responses to Can We Teach Leaders Humility?

  1. A great post – should be something every up and coming leader is exposed to.

    • Thanks, Ed. Your books arrived yesterday. I am taking them on my trip to CA to read on the plane. You are doing great work. Thanks for your comment. I hope you will continue to add your insights.

  2. Have them read “Good To Great” by Jim Collins.

    Collins research revealed the two attributes of Level 5 leaders were humility and vulnerability.

  3. Steve, oh yes. That’s a great add. Thanks.

  4. Great article! Can’t wait to read this…would also recommend Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World by Craig and Marc Kielburger.

  5. Excellent post, Karin. I believe that we can teach humility but the individual has to be teachable. I have been fortunate to have mentor in my life who have not only modeled humility to me but have intentionally taught me humility using the principles you described. I too am alarmed by the lack of humble leadership in our culture today but I am choosing to do what I can to reverse that trend by striving for a deeper humility in my own leadership and a determination to mentor younger people around me. Thanks for your post.

  6. How do we teach humility? What a question! I think it starts at home with good parenting skills, followed by well-funded pre-schools, followed by well-funded primary and secondary schools, followed by post high school training either in a technical course or at a university. Good teaching instills a love of learning and a lack of unnecessary fear. From this, humility!

  7. M. Celina Condo March 19, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    Can this be taught? Once an adult has achieved leadership status… does the desire to be humble have to be born within oneself? If the concept of humility was not engrained in one as a child… can it be taught to that person in adulthood? I give credit to my parents… they did a good job… but I struggle with humility often, in the little things and the big. I am very curious about the book, so I hope to read a copy in the near future. :)

    • Celina, thanks… I wonder that too…. at some point in our lives does it become more difficult. I wrestle with the balance of building confidence in my own children and also encouraging them to be humble in that confidence. Tricky stuff at every age.

  8. Hi Karin and others,

    How do we teach humility? Perhaps we start with asking the question to others, “How can I help you!” and make that our quest. Servant and leader, two roles fused into one role creates leaders with humility. If one is a servant, that leader is always searching, listening, and expecting to find a wheel for the current times.

  9. You know I don’t comment often…but I had to today. Loved this post, Karin. Well done. I’m currently reading “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow” by John C. Maxwell (I love his style), and while “humility” isn’t listed, “servanthood” is – similar idea. My faith as a Christian also has some great examples of humility, from David to Jesus, examples that I try to follow and learn from.

  10. Karin…your wisdom just keeps getting better. Thank you. Put this on Twitter just now. Will be asking those I mentor around the globe to read it and we will discuss. Thank you for leading so well.

  11. Can we teach leaders to be humble? I hope so. I work with college student leaders and this question came up just last week. It’s a tough one. We’re contemplating a group discussion on how we can “own” our strengths and accomplishments without having to broadcast them. It’s a skill that we need to develop not just for leadership positions, but for handling job interviews effectively and just getting along with others in life. Thanks for your great post!

  12. I have lived in the enviroment of arrogant leadership and it is destructive. Humble leaders help those whom work with them grow dramatically. Arrogant leaders live in fear and stunt growth. I have much to learn about being humble…but knowing that is the first step.

    • Tom – I too have been subjected to arrogant leadership but I have found being exposed to that is a great personal motivator for personal humility. A great bible verse says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Blessings on your quest for humility.

    • Tom, thanks for adding that… yeah, I’ve found that too… you can learn a lot from leadership styles you dislike.

  13. David, thanks for adding that. Great to have so many wonderful contributions today!

  14. I’ve been going through QBQ the past few weeks, and it goes hand in hand with humility. Humility requires that you take personal accountability for your actions.

  15. Karin, I think it is a great question and should be asked of leaders at all levels. I have to believe that humility can be learned if one honestly wants to learn to be more humble. It can only lead to greater self-awareness which should have a positive effect on one’s leadership style.

  16. Ben Franklin was all about self-improvement. He even undertook what he called ” \the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” His basic method was to examine himself on his performance of each of several virtues every day.

    He started with twelve virtues. But, after a friend told him that he was often thought proud, he added “humility” as a thirteenth virtue. Here’s what he has to say about that.

    “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own.”

  17. Thought provoking post Karin, thanks. I think that Modeling humility may be the most powerful lesson of all here. You can do all the other activities but if you’re not walking the talk it won’t have as much of an impact.
    Also, I think a sixth lesson would be to practice appreciating the strengths and qualities of others. In my experience shifting the attention from self outward builds humility as well.

  18. Humility is the cousin of authenticity and a required attribute of servant leadership. In today’s customer-centric world, humility can lead to actually listening to customers’ needs and responding with empathy and innovation, rather than repeatedly asking what customers want and then doing what was already prescribed in your strategic business plan. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of this attribute — and the perspective that we can actually teach leaders how to adopt it.

  19. Thanks for this post– it is challenging to consider whether humility can be taught. I believe true humility is vitally linked to having a secure identity. So perhaps instrumental to teaching humility would be helping others discover an unshakable foundation on where to base their identity.

  20. Moving from I to WE…..celebrating others.

  21. Karin and to all who offered their own valuable comments – thank you so much: This is important work – let’s all help this blog/website continue to grow to critical mass. Your messages and insights can transform the workplace, the lives of workers, and beyond. Can we take the growing collective wisdom of this group and share it through periodic e-books?

    • Ed and others. I have been absolutely delighted with the amazing contributoins on this post. The more we can share with one another, the more we all grow. That is my in intention for this community. I do see ebooks in the future, and have bee working on one. I would love suggestions from the LGL community on which topics are of most interest.

  22. There is nothing more dishearteningfor some one working towards being a true leader than to have people in leadership positions above youthat believe it is all about them. Leadership is not about promoting yoirself it is aboit developing others. I have always believed a good leader developed not only one but multiple people that could take his/her place.Being humble is the foundation along with being authentic. If you do not have those two qualities first you are not really a leader.

  23. The art of great questions is a great point of a way to show and encourage humility in leadership. It is in how we ask questions as well as in how we encourage questions from the quietest of the participants. It is listening and extending an opportunity to be heard.

    Great post. Thanks! Jon

  24. Great comment!I usually use the sentence“How can I help you?” everytime an advisee or faculty member enters my office. Never thought about it this way! I shall retweet your comment and post it on facebook for my students to read. Thanks!

  25. Hoda, so great to see you here! Thanks for your comment. I am glad you are sharing Jon’s question with others. That’s exactly what this community is all about. Hope to see you back.

  26. Excellent Post-so timely and accurate.

    This definetely has the capacity to grow leaders.

  27. I have seen many arrogant leaders in action – destructive action. They are so blind to the real good that others around them are doing – or if they recognize it, in their ‘need’ to be outstanding, they will put down the contributions of others, and puff up their own. In my experience arrogant leaders may begin to get interested in humility after a ‘good failure’ – one they cannot (rationally, at least) blame on anyone but themselves. That breaks through their false sense of invulnerability. Then, if they think about how much ‘luck’ was involved with their successes – things that happened that were out of their control; well, they get a little more humility. Then if they think they are just one of 7.2 billion people on the planet – and for such a fleeting period of time too – their humility can become even greater. Then, if they examine their flaws… well, you get the point. If an arrogant leader opens him or her self up to what life really has to teach us – I think they begin that journey towards humility – and take their first step towards what could become true greatness.

  28. Humility is important,. Remember that we are all growing, and we have all started from a place of near ignorance, and moved forward from there. The authentic leaders never forget that they started as beginners, and help others move forward as well. Leaders who continue learning will recognize that they start as beginners all the time, whenever they decide to learn something new.

    How do we show leaders that it is important to be humble? Encourage them to teach others the best of what they know. That is the best way to leave a legacy. Humility is part of that bundle of authentic leadership skills.

    Happy new years all!

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